His heyday at Barcelona is remembered just as it was foreshadowed. Hristo Stoichkov arrived in Barcelona in 1990 having scored 38 goals in 30 matches for CSKA Sofia. Yet, he was only playing after a lifetime ban a few seasons before, for his involvement in a brawl in the Bulgarian Cup Final, had been reduced to a month’s ban.
At Barcelona, Stoichkov’s story continued in a similar vein – brilliant performances tempered with fines, bans and public clashes with his Coach. The Bulgarian striker was one of the key players in the Barcelona Dream Team built up by Johan Cruyff, along with the likes of Andoni Zubizarreta, Ronald Koeman, Romario and Michael Laudrup, which won four consecutive League titles, and more importantly the club’s first European Cup in 1992. As Laudrup recently reflected, the current Barcelona side may be the club’s best ever team, but the Dream Team were first.
After such a successful 1992, Stoichkov was joint favourite for the Ballon d’Or along with Dutch striker Marco van Basten. The 1991 winner, Jean Pierre Papin, named Stoichkov as his rightful successor saying it would be ‘unfair’ not to award him the prize. Stoichkov himself admitted ‘Van Basten is the best,’ but quickly followed it up, stating ‘I have done more to deserve it this year’.
The speculation and debate ended in the week leading up to the award when Milan President Silvio Berlusconi let slip that his striker would win the prize. Stoichkov claimed the Italian’s lobbying through his media empire had swung the vote, and he would have to wait two years to win the prize.
After a 2-0 slip-up at Sporting, the calendar year of 1994 got going with a historic 5-0 thrashing of Real Madrid at Camp Nou. Madrid left-back Mikel Lasa ploughed through Stoichkov early in the game – he was a marked man and he had to make way for Laudrup in the second half, but it was only after winning the free-kick which Ronald Koeman converted to add to Romario’s stunning hat-trick.
Four months later the Catalans pipped Deportivo to the League title. The Galicians topped the table from matchday 14, only to see Barcelona leapfrog them on the very last day of the season. While Romario was the Pichichi with 30 goals in 33 games, Stoichkov was named Don Balon’s Best Foreign Player.
And despite the disappointment of failing to win the second European Cup in three years, Milan trampling over Barcelona in the final with a historic 4-0 victory, Stoichkov’s crowning moment was yet to come.
Having displaced France at the top of their qualification group, Stoichkov lead Bulgaria to the 1994 World Cup in USA. Despite an opening match setback, losing 3-0 to Nigeria, Bulgaria then defeated Greece (4-0) and Argentina (2-0), with Stoichkov scoring three in two matches, to qualify along with the South Americans to the knockout phase.
His early goal against Mexico in the Last 16 was cancelled out, though he didn’t take a penalty in the shootout after El Tricolor missed their first three spot-kicks. Trailing 1-0 to Germany with just 15 minutes to go in the quarter final came his iconic moment, Stoichkov beating Bodo Illgner at the near post, curling his shot over the six-man wall. Yordan Lechkov’s diving header took them through to the semi-final.
Although Stoichkov pulled one back against Italy, Roberto Baggio’s brace set up an Italy-Brazil final, leaving Bulgaria to face Sweden in the third/fourth playoff. It was only the second time in their history that the national team had passed even the first phase of the tournament and reaching the semi-final is still the country’s finest ever performance at a World Cup.
With six goals in the tournament, Stoichkov was joint Golden Shoe winner with Oleg Salenko and joined his teammate Romario in the competition’s All-Star team. It would be his most prolific year for his country scoring nine goals in 11 games.
Just as in 1992, Stoichkov was confident of his chances of winning the Ballon d’Or, telling France Football ‘Cantona didn’t play in the World Cup. Neither did Ginola. Maldini is a defender and is injured’. It is said he simply shook his head when Baggio and Bergkamp were named, and even pulled a face when Hagi was mentioned.
In the final vote, he smashed the competition taking 210 points over nearest placed Roberto Baggio on 136. More eloquently, he received 28 nominations as the best player of the year, far ahead of Maldini (eight) and Baggio (six), and became the third Barcelona player after Luis Suarez and Johan Cruyff to win the trophy.